Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fiction #49: J.R. McConvey

Little Flags

“I believe this is where the battle for civilization is being fought. I really do.”

Earl Sampson ambled along the border, thumbs jammed into his belt, fingers crabbed toward a huge brass belt-buckle forged in the shape of a Texas rose. Two newsmen followed him, one crouched behind a camera, the other, a reporter, poking a long microphone toward Earl’s face. Earl paused and flashed his best public smile, the one Helen had always said shone like the grille of an oncoming truck.

“Right here, along this border. Sure, we can build a wall – build the biggest wall you ever seen! And we’re doin’ it! Mile by mile, we’re building it, just like we’re building the drones. I mean, you take the fella they caught right here, just yesterday. Those were Shield Hawks that spotted him, yessir. Lord Almighty… Lopez, he said his name was. Well, they’re all Lopez, aren’t they?

“But my point is, you really want to fix the border problem? What you need is vigilance. Vigilance and will! And it ain’t me I’m talking about, neither. My sunset’s not far off. What I’m doing trying to ignite the spark of nationhood in the hearts of the youth.”

On cue, Earl drew from his back pocket a miniature flag, black plastic wand glued with a nylon flap dyed with the stars and stripes, a white cardboard label etched with tiny lines of text dangling from a string tied to its blunted spike. From the sidelines, his assistant, Ollie, spied the flag and leaned down to whisper to the wee pigtailed girl at his knees, who skipped over to Earl and looked up at him with eyes as wide as a Colorado sky. As though conferring a blessing, Earl pressed the toy flag into the little girl’s palm, squeezing her fingers around its holiness.

“This is my own kind of nation building, see? With each flag I pass on to kids like this little peach right here” – Earl patted the girl on the head – “maybe it helps ’em know what it means to be an American. What God-given rights they have, and why we can’t let the illegals take those rights away from them. Not to mention the jobs!

“Mark my words – this country is being invaded.”

He swung his arm in a wide arc across the scrubland behind the coils of razor wire, the desert rolling down to the bloodied cities beyond the Rio Grande, stricken drug hives that disgorged the desperate and ambitious in equal measure toward Earl’s watchful eye.

“La Reconquista. It’s on the way. Bolivar, Pancho Villa…  that revolutionary spirit is bleedin’ up through the border like a coming flood.”

He turned his face and stared straight into the camera, smile cranked up to chrome-plated 18-Wheeler, pedal to the metal.

“I’m just doin’ what I can to stop it.”

*

Every year, leading up to the Fourth of July, the American Shield received thousands of letters of support from across the country. They poured in by mail, by email, some delivered by hand, and from each one Earl Sampson selected a pithy excerpt, which he had printed on a white cardboard label and tied to one of the little American flags from his stockpile, thereby imbuing cheap Chinese product with a dose of real American sentiment. He would then, in person whenever possible, place each flag in the dirt along the border fence between Cochise County and the Mexican hinterland. There were thousands of them, planted for as far as you could see, a beautiful force field of red, white and blue fluttering against the bleached landscape. On one part of the wall, the flags had been pinned up and arranged to spell out the words Earl Sampson held as his own personal creed and mission: SECURE THE BORDER. STOP THE INVASION.

Earl could see the slogan from the bay window in his ranch-style living room, as fine a view as any cowboy could ask for. Same as every evening, he saluted the words and the dusky sky behind them, then sank down into his leather recliner and sighed. Tonight he was extra tired from smiling for the cameras all day, and was looking forward to a night in front of the tube. He liked the old westerns, Gunsmoke and Rawhide and The Virginian, and now with satellite TV he could watch them all the time.

Earl shifted his gut and wiped a palm across his hat-greasy head as the TV glowed on, the sound of canned gunshots filling the room. It was important to be settled just right before he called in Valentina.

In his mind, he called her his Only – as in, his Only Exception. To the boys who dared give him a look, he said the same thing every time, smiling at maximum throttle: “A girl as doggone pretty as that transcends the national interest, wouldn't you say?” In those words would be contained all the ones that Earl Sampson didn’t need to speak aloud: that he’d founded the Shield with money from his own goddamn pockets, and the Shield’s guns were his guns, and that Helen had been gone over a year now, so the wise thing was to shut the fuck up unless you wanted to spend a night discussing the matter with Earl’s nine German Shepherds. And the boys would all nod and shrug and let it go… because you couldn’t argue that Valentina was one pretty little prize. Young and svelte, with skin the colour of mocha chocolate. She’d been with him for just about six months now, shipped in from Nuevo León by a Coyote he’d got friendly with, and although she cleaned the house and prepared meals, her chief concern was to bring Earl his daily after-work bourbon, and to otherwise help him relax and shrug off the tension born of holding back the tidal wave of Mexican blood that threatened to engulf his beloved country day in and day out.

On the table beside him lay one of his testifying flags – message: Keep Up the Good Fight! America for Americans – and next to it, a little brass bell. Earl picked up the bell and gave a sharp ding. “Valentina, darlin’?” he shouted in singsong drawl. “It’s time!”

She came at his call, resplendent in a dress of purple lace, carrying a tray laid with a single tumbler frosted with cold and filled with cherry-dark bourbon. Her eyes were black as opals, her frame as petite and light as a bird’s. There were times when she looked mute, ignorant even; but Earl knew what kind of fight the girl had in her. She’d been a prickly cactus at first, but he’d taught her the ropes, soon enough.

“Well don't you just look adorable as all git’ out tonight,” he said, pinching at her behind. “So kind of you to bring me my little drop of medicine in such a punctual fashion.” He took the glass from the tray and brought it to his lips with a satisfied slurp. “Did you see me on the TV today? Then you know how tired my poor bones are. Yes indeed, another tough day for old Earl and his brothers of the Shield…”

Valentina stood still beside the chair, staring down into the silver tray held out flat in front of her. Earl looked up at her face. He liked the girl, for real. After Helen had passed, he’d found that no time patrolling the border, no amount of rifle practice, not even the affection of his beloved dogs could stop the day from coming to that hollow point of loneliness, just Earl and Rawhide on the TV, him getting up again and again to fill his own whisky glass even though the bourbon wasn’t any help, either. The house empty, the bougainvillea in the big pots dying because it had always been Helen who tended them. The hollow was nothing like Earl had ever known before. It made him feel old and strange and weak, and those weren’t feelings he could tolerate, not with the mission he was on. And so he’d brought Valentina into the house on the down-low, not sure exactly what her role would be, but confident he’d find a way to make use of her, all the same.

Earl smiled at her, not his semi-truck smile, but a gentler one, a real one. He was strong – loved being strong – but any man had times when he needed a break from the bluster. Every man needed someone to talk to, to share his pleasures with.

Her being Mexican… well, everyone had a tragic flaw. He’d asked the Lord for his forgiveness. And anyway, sometimes, lying in bed at night waiting for the desert moon to sink, he wondered if he might not be doing a good thing with it.

Although he would never admit it out loud, didn’t even like to say it to himself, when he looked at Valentina, he knew deep down that he could never stop them. The ones crawling across the desert, they had heart – but that wasn’t even it. What they had on their side, what he could never stamp out, was a longing to reach America, to taste its riches, to know the real meaning of freedom. How could you talk someone out of a dream like that? How could you even blame them? They’d keep on coming, thick and hungry as a locust plague, just as long as the States kept shining its beacon out over their hardscrabble lives. Hell, half the country was already Hispanic. Although Earl would remain vigilant, would stand by his banners like a good warrior, he could see full well that the old America – the one that loved Rawhide and Gunsmoke and The Virginian like he did – was getting as and thin and translucent as the Chinese nylon on his little flags.

He hated to know it, would hate it until the day he followed Helen into the arms of the Lord, but looking up at Valentina, such a lovely dark thing, gave him a thread of solace to hold onto. The whisky swirled round Earl’s his head, and he thought: If they have to come, at least let ‘em be like her.

“Now,” he said. “Let’s make sure I can recuperate in time for the fireworks shows tomorrow!” He took another swig of bourbon. “I know you don’t love this part as of yet, although I’m hoping you’ll learn, eventually. You know I’m always telling you to trust me. You’ll see it in the end – you’ll thank me for everything, for giving you a place here. Even for puttin’ some savings aside for you instead of letting you fritter it all away on that needy family of yours. Yes: remain in the care of Earl Sampson, my Valentine, and perhaps one day you’ll come to know the fullness of pride and pleasure that America at its best can truly bring.”

Earl heaved back and kicked up the recliner to emphasize the point.    

“Maybe having watched that young fella on the TV yesterday, the one we picked off a mile or so from the highway, will drive home just how lucky you are to’ve landed here. It ain’t nice to say it, but you know as well as I do that you could’ve ended up somewhere out there in the desert, feedin’ the buzzards.” He eased his polyester-panted legs a touch further apart and chuckled. “You know I love ya’ dearly and consider you a special case. I hate to think of you back out there, staggering around in the dust and dark.”

Without a sound, Valentina placed the tray down on the side table and came to stand in front of Earl.

“That’s it. And mind, no mischief, now,” he said. It was the thing Helen had always said to him before he headed out for border patrol. He’d learned it in Spanish for Valentina.

“Ninguna travesura. Old Earl’s had a hard day.”

*

She was the only one who knew how to comfort him. A terrible fever had come over him and he’d lain drained and sweating for days in the shadowed adobe room, and their mother had quailed and wept and prayed to God for his recovery, but only Valentina had stayed by his side, stroking his damp hair away from his eyes, whispering stories to soothe him into sleep.

Andres wished she were here now. The blue desert stretched out behind him, miles of brittle mesquite and old skulls and chittering rattlesnakes; but nothing was more terrifying than the crest of pink on the horizon, the first blushing of day. The nighttime was shadowed and tense, but the days were a crazed scramble through unbearable heat and blinding light, easy pickings for La Migra’s patrolmen and the assault rifles they aimed from the backs of their armored pickups.

His vision blurred with the delirium of sleeplessness. The air was already getting harder to breathe, thickening with encroaching heat. If she was here, she could put her hand on his forehead, cooling it with her touch. Could speak his name.  Say, Andino. You are almost there.

It was over a year ago that his sister had left Monterrey to go north in search of work. For the first few months, she’d sent money back. Then, without warning, it had stopped. His family waited, hoping to hear word, hoping the money would start coming again. But nothing came.
Andres, the closest to her in age, insisted on going after her.

“How will you find her?” his mother said. “She could be anywhere. She could be in Canada by now. She could be dead.” She wept, cursing the Americans and their money, cursing Mexico for needing it.

Andres knew his sister wasn’t dead. They were bound, shared an interior language forged in those long nights when she stayed by his bedside and they dreamed together of other places, magical futures. He could feel her whispering somewhere up past the Rio Grande. “Don’t worry, mama,” he said. “I know she’s alive. I will find her.” What he left out was the darkness he could also feel, the sense that his sister was somehow being choked, that she was alive but death was close to her.

The sun rose into a sky striped with long clouds. Andres slouched down behind an outcropping of cactus and orange stone, taking what rest he could before the morning was fully upon him. He looked out to the distance. He’d been walking for three days. Yesterday’s supper had used up his last bits of food, and he had only a half bottle of water left, which he brought to his mouth now for a few sparing sips. He had to be close. There was no other way to think.

He stood and began his slow, shuffling walk once more. The sun’s heat had clawed its way over the hills and was already beginning to bake his chapped lips. He kept stumbling, trying not to fall, to add more bruises and scrapes to the ones purpled and festering on his elbows and knees. Above him, a buzzard circled the griddled sky, watching. He lurched forward and threw his arms up into the air and croaked, and it flew off northward, crossing borders without concern.

Hours passed and the sun reached its blistering apex. He tried to keep an image of his sister in his mind – to hold onto the gaze he gave her as she stared out from his memory, soft but unbreakable. But the image blurred in the heat, her face turning to gnarled tumbleweeds, her dark eyes filled with the flitting tongues of snakes.

Andres closed his eyes and craned his face skyward, letting the sun turn the inside of his lids rust red. When he opened them, the buzzard had come back. There was another one with it. They circled and dipped, descending toward him. Something in their turning made him look closer. There was no patience in their curves; their hunger was harder, more urgent.

When he heard the whine of their motors he knew. Not birds, but planes with no pilots, eyes with no bodies. Not buzzards, but Border Hawks – drones.

Fear and adrenalin surged into his muscles and threw him into a run. Blind running, running anywhere, in search of cover that didn’t exist in this wide-open hell, running with whatever energy he had left in the direction he believed might lead him to safety. To his sister, still alive up there, stalked by darkness. The dust and grit and heat poured into him, and he began coughing, little catches to start, then huge, wracking coughs, his whole trunk convulsing and threatening to split apart and spill his organs out onto the baking earth. The power in his legs dissolved, giving way under the weight of his hurtling body, pitching him forward into the scrub. His cheekbone met the dirt and his vision went black.

Amidst the high ringing and the warm touch of blood he fixed her in his mind and his heart, fused his own pounding heartbeats to hers, so that each would know exactly when the other’s stopped beating. He opened his shredded mouth and although he made no sound, called to her.

Valentina.

By the time he rolled over and saw the green and white pickup truck bouncing over the horizon, dozens of little American flags lining its hood, he had to call it a victory. He would not die in the desert. They would send him back, but he would be alive. To wait, again. For her, or another chance to go after her. 

Two officers jumped down from the truck and hauled him up by the arms. A glaring light moved in, and they held him out like a trophy deer for the television camera it was attached to. Another man, this one wearing a big suede Stetson and orange sunglasses and an embroidered cowboy shirt bulging with his gut, waddled over and stood in front of him.

“What's your name, son?” he said.

Andres hung like a scarecrow. The camera light blazed into his face and he squinted and groaned at the pain in his head, like a metal cog grinding away at the bone under his eye. His sister’s face swelled up in his mind, and then folded into ripples and collapsed, like a stilled flag.

“Lopez,” he said. “Andres Lopez.”
   
*

She kneeled in front of him, rubbing, squeezing. There were veins and callouses and hard edges, his feet pale and misshapen from years stuffed into hot boots treading uneven ground. The last two toes on each foot were clubbed, the nails yellowed and thick. She heard him take another long, oily swallow of bourbon and sigh. Some TV western blared out behind her, all tinny orchestra music and buckaroo drawl. Valentina closed her eyes and kneaded his troll’s feet, reciting out, with each application of pressure, a mantra in her mind. Last time. Last time. Last time. 

She rubbed and pressed patiently, until the first twitch came, quick and sharp. Then another, a longer convulsion, the tension in his muscles tighter than a belch or a blissful shudder would provoke. She paused, holding his limp feet in her hands like a hunk of moist cheese, and now he wrenched and turned and pitched his glass rolling across the floor, emptied of the strong and fragrant bourbon, the extra little thing she’d mixed in. Above her, his face reddened and swelled like a morning sun, suffused with his proud blood, and as he thrashed she listened to the sounds of him choking, watched the streams of white foam begin dribbling from his lips. Even in the throes of death, he was so pink and fat, so much like a greased ham.

She thought about how thin her brother had looked, his smashed-in face recoiling from the cameras, golden skin whitened to ash, blue splotches darkening his eyes, making the ripped-open flesh of his left cheek all the more vivid as it streamed with blood. He was broken, defeated, and they held up his defeat like a banner, echoing the words that Earl Sampson had emblazoned on his beloved, accursed fence.

Valentina Lopez let go of the dead man’s feet. She reached over and picked up the little flag on the side table, which she waved once in a feeble victory cheer before sliding its cheap, wobbly stem into the pocket of Earl Sampson’s cowboy shirt. The sun was nearly set, and she would need to be far away before morning came. He would be expected at the parade. When he didn’t show, they would look for him. And then for her.

She grabbed the knapsack from behind the curtain, stashed that morning, and stripped off her purple dress, quickly changing into the dark sweats she’d plucked from the closet where his dead wife’s clothing still hung. The glass door slid open onto humid night, alive with the sizzle of crickets and of wind crawling over the dirt, the sound she knew so well, which she had heard like a song pulling her forward when she’d first set off into the nighttime, away from Monterrey, toward the silvered wonderland of America.

She thought about Andres, surely now slouched in the back of some filthy truck bouncing back down the rutted road to Monterrey. She thought about their crumbling house there with its claustrophobic adobe rooms, the time she’d watched her brother shiver through the fever for nine days, almost dying in the dust and heat. She remembered the stories she’d told him, about the land of hopes and dreams.

She was the one who’d made it. She was across now.

Above her, the stars were coming out, mirroring the twinkle of city lights visible to the north. She wanted to know it, all of it… the fullness of pride and pleasure. Behind her, a big spangled flag stirred atop the late Earl Sampson’s ranch, gesturing toward the horizon, whispering its promise.

*



J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto. His short story, “The Last Ham”, was shortlisted for the 2012 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and is available as an ebook through House of Anansi Digital. His writing has appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, The Puritan, The Broken City, The Found Poetry Review and other outlets, and he has won several awards for his work as a writer and producer of documentaries. He hates winter. Find him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.

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